Time for my eleventh annual list of what I consider to be the Top Ten best books of the year. These are books I enjoyed, and that I think my readership will enjoy. They are one man’s opinions. Your mileage may vary. I’ve been told by authors, publishers, and booksellers that my list helps boost their sales, which means you folks are buying things based on my recommendation. So here we go.
Rule #1: The edition of the book listed here must have been published during the year for which it is being considered (for example, although I read Haikasoru’s edition of Sakyo Komatsu’s Virus this year, it was published in 2012, making it ineligible for this list, which is a shame, because it would have certainly placed in the Top 10).
Rule #2: If I contributed to a book (be it an introduction, afterword, my Maelstrom imprint, etc.) then it is disqualified from the list. Cover blurbs do not apply to rule #2.
Rule #3: Nepotism. Every year, someone says, “The only reason so-and-so is on your list is because you know them.” If that was true, then there would be no point in doing a Top Ten list. After working within the genre for almost 20 years, I know everybody. Publishing is a deceptively small community. Suffice to say, nepotism plays no part in this list. I read many books by many close friends this year that won’t make the list.
I read 151 books this year — up from the 103 I read in 2012. For the first time ever, I read more books via Kindle than I did in physical format. I suspect the Kindle is allowing me to read faster. I know for a fact that the device is making it easier for me to read (there’s something to be said for making the font larger rather than having to peer over the top of one’s bifocals). Click here for a complete list of the 151 books I read in 2013. If you are curious about the Top Ten lists from previous years, some of them are archived here.
And now, in order, the Top Ten Books of 2013…
Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland”.
I’ve long adored Joe Hill’s short fiction. Indeed, I’d rank him as one of the top short story craftsmen of our generation of horror writers. He also knows his way around a comic script. But his novel-length works have left me wanting. I enjoyed them, sure, but they read (to me, at least) like a writer still honing his true voice. It’s been neat to watch that transformation proceed between Heart-Shaped Box to Horns, and it’s wonderful to see it manifest fully with NOS4A2 – a masterful work of horror and dark fantasy, brimming with heartfelt poignancy, unexpected moments of delightful humor, and some genuinely terrifying moments.
Horror is an evocative genre. It doesn’t work unless you give the reader a reason to be uncomfortable. The best way to do that is characterization, and this is where NOS4A2 truly shines. The loathsome Charlie Manx is one of the most enjoyable antagonists I’ve come across in some time, and a great new twist on the vampire trope. But the true gem of this book is Louis “Lou” Carmody — a sympathetic and painfully realistic character that the single dad in me immediately fell in love with. Yes, much has been written about the novel’s strong female protagonist and her young son, and those accolades are well-deserved and true. But make no mistake — Lou is this book’s hidden heart, and the life Hill infuses him with is what puts NOS4A2 firmly at number one. Buy it here.
Tick and Polly have never met their parents. They live in the same house, but their parents have never visited even once since they were born. When the machines that provide them with food and water stop functioning, the children are forced to venture out of the nursery to find their parents on their own. And the deeper into the house they go, the more they must unravel the mysteries surrounding their past and the world they’ve grown up in, if they ever hope to meet the parents they’ve always longed to see.
That moment when you try to turn somebody on to Carlton Mellick’s work and effectively communicate the poetry and beauty found within, and they frown at you and say, “You mean the guy that wrote The Haunted Vagina and Apeshit?” It’s frustrating, isn’t it? The Haunted Vagina is a clever treatise on post-modern feminism, and Apeshit is a brilliant deconstruction of slasher films. But a certain segment of readers never discover this because they’re too busy giggling over the titles.
Well, not this time, assholes. Leave your preconceived notions at the door. There’s nothing funny about the title Quicksand House. Which is good, because after writing close to forty books, Quicksand House is Carlton Mellick’s best novel to date, and deserves to be read. It is, in fact, the quintessential bizarro novel, the one that should be handed to readers who are curious about that genre — an equal measure of dystopian science-fiction, survival horror, comedy, and weirdness. And, like the best bizarro books, it also serves as a thoughtful examination and deconstruction — this time of the nuclear family. Think Flowers in the Attic meets Escape From New York meets Alice in Wonderland meets Fallout 3.
As a long-time reader of Mellick’s work, I suspect this was a deeply personal book for him. His books always have an abundance of heart and pathos, but Quicksand House is imbued with a sincerity that almost hurts — an emotional vibe that will resonate strongly with the reader. It’s one of two books this year that made me cry (we’ll get to the other one in a bit). Standing ovation, Carlton. I predict a shoe-in for next year’s Wonderland Book Awards. Buy it here.
For Damien, growing up was all about being an outsider in his own home. His mother and brother shared an unfathomable bond that left him excluded from their lives. Yet his earliest, fragmentary memory of them was so nightmarish, their lives were something he ran from as soon as he could. Now an astronomy graduate student in Seattle, Damien is happy with his place as a speck in a cosmos vast beyond comprehension. Until his brother turns up after 13 years, to make amends and seek his expertise on a discovery that may not be of this Earth.
H.P. Lovecraft was not the greatest stylist. Indeed, when considering the merits of his prose alone, he was merely a serviceable writer. And yet he’s a giant in our field, alongside Poe, Matheson, and King. The reason for this are the feelings of sheer dread his stories have continued to invoke in generations of readers. The cosmic otherness of his mythos is unlike any other. That’s why so many Lovecraftian pastiches fail — they turn his mythos into the struggle between good and evil, failing to understand that such concepts were as alien to Lovecraft’s pantheon as the Old Ones and Elder Gods themselves. Lovecraft’s horror stories were most effective when dealing with things that came from outside — outside our understanding, outside our comprehension, outside our beliefs and knowledge and wisdom. Things unknown and things unable to ever be known.
Brian Hodge has dabbled in Lovecraft Country before (we all have, to some extent) but in this novella (the longest thing Hodge has written for quite some time) he succeeds where the vast majority of others fail — he manages to invoke that same palpable sense of dread and otherness that defined Lovecraft’s work, but with a fully modern sensibility (and much better prose). The tethers to the old gent’s mythos are tenuous at best. If you’re looking for squid-headed Old Ones or a travelogue of Innsmouth, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you want to feel horror again… real horror… if you want to be made uncomfortable, or feel utterly alone, or be reminded of just how infinitesimally small we are, and that how, no matter how important you might think the human race is, space does not give a fuck, because space is the ultimate outsider — then Whom The Gods Would Destroy will amply fit your needs.
Hodge’s prose has lost none of its beauty or ferocity. Indeed, the sheer lyrical quality of his wordsmithing has never been stronger. He still crafts sentences and paragraphs that will make other authors weep (except for maybe Tom Piccirilli, who is also bestowed with that same gift). But there are other subtle layers to be found here. The protagonist is a young man, and Hodge does a fine job with the character’s voice and wants and fears and desires, but the book has an underlying narrative atmosphere that I think only comes with age. To borrow a phrase from Laird Barron, Whom the Gods Would Destroy is “bread for the soul”, and you need to eat. Buy it here.
Collecting interlinking tales of sublime cosmic horror, including “Blackwood’s Baby,” “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven,” and “The Men from Porlock,” Barron’s third collection delivers enough spine-chilling horror to satisfy even the most jaded reader.
There’s a game we horror writers like to play, a secret game played in hotel bars and convention after-parties. The game is called ‘Spot-the-Influences’, and in it, you try to pinpoint echoes of authors who influenced a particular writer’s unique voice and style. Bryan Smith, for example, has echoes of Richard Laymon. Tim Lebbon has shades of Arthur Machen. Sarah Langan probably read Shirley Jackson when she was younger. Wrath James White may have enjoyed an Edward Lee novel or two. Weston Ochse has never read a Ray Bradbury story he didn’t like. All of us, and by all of us I mean any writer who has come to prominence post-Nineties, has echoes of King and Lovecraft (and I’d argue that a great number of us also echo either the Splatterpunks or Charles Grant and Ramsey Campbell).
There is one exception to this rule, and that exception is Laird Barron. It’s impossible to play spot the influences with his work because his voice is so strong that any underlying influence is nothing more than a subtle strand of literary gossamer that will evaporate as soon as you try to identify it. More so than any other writer working in our field today (with the possible exception of Joe R. Lansdale), Laird Barron’s voice is unique. Nothing else reads like him, although many try. In playing Spot the Influences, I’ve proposed that there’s a vein of Karl Edward Wagner running through Laird’s background, and he’s never dissuaded me of this suspicion, but if so, then it explains even more why his voice is so much his own, because the same could be said of Wagner’s. Like Wagner before him, Barron’s fiction is thoroughly-steeped in the traditions, expectations, and tropes of the genre, and again, like Wagner before him, Barron regularly shatters every one of those conceptions and expectations.
The stories in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All are no exception. These are not quick tales, meant to be enjoyed with your morning coffee or read for ten minutes before bed. These are stories you’ll want to make time for. They are an investment. They demand of you, and the reward is worth that demand. You could say Laird Barron is our generation’s Karl Edward Wagner. You could say these stories are what happens when Jack London and Zane Grey go drinking with William Hope Hodgson and Algernon Blackwood. But what they really are is Laird Barron, and they are terrifying and awe-inspiring. If you haven’t yet tried his work, this is a great place to start. A beautiful thing awaits you all. Buy it here.
Forty years ago, our narrator, who was then a seven-year-old boy, unwittingly discovered a neighboring family’s supernatural secret. What happens next is an imaginative romp through otherwordly adventure that could only come from Gaiman’s magical mind. Childhood innocence is tested and transcended as we see what getting between ancient, mystic forces can cost, as well as what can be gained from the power of true friendship.
We all know that Neil Gaiman’s work transcends genre. It is most often classified as “fantasy”, but much of his prose has an ethereal quality to it that I think “modern fairy tale” might be a more apt description. With that in mind, and with his recent work on Doctor Who and his branching into children’s books, it’s easy for the general public to forget that Neil Gaiman can write disturbing and terrifying scenes when he wants to. Of course, those of us who remember Angels & Visitations, his contributions to Taboo, or even the later Doctor Destiny sequence from Sandman, know that when Gaiman sets out to disturb, there are few who can match him.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a horror novel (any more than it is a fantasy novel) but it does contain plenty of supernatural sequences, horrific imagery, and at least one truly terrifying segment, as well as one of this year’s scariest antagonists (second only to NOS4A2‘s Charlie Manx). I’m always a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and this is one of the best I’ve read in years, possibly because of the dualism taking place within the prose. On the one hand, it’s a typical coming-of-age tale, with all the mystery and wonder and lessons one expects from that. But overlying it all is a sense of melancholy — the sadness that one often feels when looking back. The emotion never seems forced or heavy-handed. Tricky to pull off, even in the most-accomplished of writers, but Gaiman makes it seem effortless. A beautiful, heartfelt achievement. Neil Gaiman should be proud, and you should read this. Buy it here.
It started with a couple of dead bodies and $68,000 in stolen cash. Chip Taylor’s girlfriend Liza had the perfect plan to rip off her rich sugar daddy. It should have been an easy in and out kind of deal. Nobody would get hurt and they would come out of it with enough loot to solve their problems. But things started going wrong as soon as they were inside the rich man’s house, and for Chip it was only the beginning of the longest, most terrifying ride of his life.
Hill, Mellick, Hodge, Barron, Gaiman… By now, some of you are shouting, “Where’s the pulp?” Well, you’d be hard pressed to find a better pulp novel published in 2013 than Bryan Smith’s absolutely-amazing 68 Kill. I said earlier this year that may very well be the perfect New Pulp novel. Now, as the end of the year is upon us, I stand by that statement. If you want to introduce a reader to Bizarro, you hand them something by Carlton Mellick, Andersen Prunty, or Kevin L. Donihe. If you want to introduce a reader to the New Weird, you hand them something by Jeffery Vandermeer, China Mieville, or John Urbancik. If you want to introduce them to the New Pulp, there’s not a better place to start than Bryan Smith’s 68 Kill (and yes, you can hand them something by myself or J.F. Gonzalez later).
Tour de force is something that gets tossed around too often, but it’s true in the case of this novel. 68 Kill is a fun, exciting mix of punchy, economical prose, gut-wrenching violence, gleefully amoral characters, and plot twists galore. If “fun” is your primary goal when searching for a book to read, this was the most fun I had with a book this year. It really is the perfect little pulp novel. If there was any doubt that Bryan Smith is the literary heir to Richard Laymon, 68 Kill will put it to rest once and for all. A delightful, engrossing, and profane read — the perfect book for a lazy afternoon and a six-pack. Buy it here.
Bodies are melting, buildings dissolving and it’s only a matter of time before the world completely disintegrates. Despite the world rotting away, lovers Isobel and Dresden are fighting for the future, and their wedding day. Unfortunately, the rotting world isn’t their only challenge. Dresden’s mother is a wealthy woman with powerful secrets who wants only the best wife for Dresden, and Isobel isn’t it. Dresden’s mother has him kidnapped and held hostage so he’ll not only miss his wedding, but alters him so he’ll survive the rotting world and live with her forever. It’s up to Isobel to search the apocalyptic world for Dresden while he fights his mother’s mansion of horrors. If luck is on their side, Isobel and Dresden may be able to find one another before the world completely disappears.
There are only a few authors who can successfully bridge the gap between the horror and bizarro genres. Carlton Mellick, Robert Devereaux, Cody Goodfellow, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and John Skipp have done it a few times, and Laura Lee Bahr knocked it out of the park with Haunt. And yes, an argument could be made that Joe Lansdale did it with The Drive-In series and some of his short fiction. But I want to see more newer authors like the aforementioned Bahr come along and try it. That’s why I’m very happy to have read There’s No Happy Ending, the debut novel by Tiffany Scandal. In both this, and her recent hard-to-find chapbook, Hostile Awakenings, Scandal proudly straddles the line between the two genres, borrowing from both, and weaving those disparate elements into something unique. Only one other author I read this year (Stephen Kozeniewski – and for more on him, see the Honorable Mentions below) has really achieved this, but I hope it’s the start of something more.
I’d be cheating if my recommendation for you to pick up this book began with “Did you like the part in the Earthworm Gods trilogy when they figured out the world was liquefying? This whole novel is like that!” But I’ll do it, if that means you’ll give this new author a try. Once you do, you’ll find that yes, while that is the overall backdrop, There’s No Happy Ending is really a novel about mothers and sons, and how that particular dynamic can go terribly awry, and how it impacts significant others when it does. If you’ve ever had to deal with your mother not liking your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, or partner, you’ll immediately feel at home here. You may even find yourself punching the air and shouting “Oh, fuck yes!” (As I did more than once while reading it). Scandal’s inaugural effort is part-bizarro and part-horror, but at it’s heart, it’s a love story about a couple striving to overcome impossible odds… and those are the best stories of all. And I’m not telling you if the title is a spoiler or not. Buy it here.
A look into the life and mind of author Rick Hautala. From his days as a child in Massachusetts, to his days in college at the University of Maine in Orono, to the early days of his writing career along with Stephen King’s involvement, and ultimately to where his life and career stood in 2009.
The genre has certainly taken a number of blows this year with the passing of so many people, but perhaps the one that hit many the hardest was the unexpected death of Rick Hautala.
Soon after his passing, Rick’s wife, author Holly Newstein, found this manuscript among his papers. There was no digital copy on any hard drive. Several of us suspect Rick wrote this for his induction into the NECON Hall of Fame, but if so, he never submitted it, nor did he tell anyone he’d written it.
The Horror… The Horror is a fascinating, in-depth autobiography, told in Rick’s glass-half-empty style, with all of his gentle, self-effacing humor and (at times) justifiably-righteous indignation. The structure is very similar to Richard Laymon’s classic A Writer’s Tale — a loose mixture of autobiographical notes on Rick’s life, personal anecdotes about the genre and those who make their living from it, and solid writing advice. And, also like A Writer’s Tale, the writing advice tends to err on the cautionary, practical side.
This was the second book of 2013 to bring me to tears. If you are a fan of Hautala’s work, you’ll find this an engaging and emotional read. If you are a writer — especially a beginner looking for no-nonsense advice on the all-too-brutal realities of our chosen profession — then this book is absolutely indispensable. Buy it here.
In 1989, punk-rock girl “Golden” Dawn has crafted an outsider’s life combining the philosophies of Communism and Aleister Crowley’s black magic. One fateful day she finds the dead body of her mentor in both politics and magick shot in the head, seemingly a suicide. But Dawn knows there’s more going on than the cops could ever hope to find. In setting out to find the murderer herself, she will encounter dark and twisted truths for which nothing could have prepared her.
Nick Mamatas has shown with previous novels that he excels in making art out of oddly disparate elements: coming-of-age and nuclear proliferation in Under My Roof, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs confronting Cthulhu in Move Under Ground, or the hipsters of Manhattan’s Chelsea district and the ghosts of America’s Civil War in Northern Gothic are only a few examples. But with Love Is The Law, Mamatas gives us his strangest concoction yet — occultism meets communism in a young-adult crime novel.
I’ve seen some reviewers call this a coming-of-age novel, but I don’t agree with that assessment, since Love Is The Law’s protagonist, Dawn Seliger, is already much wiser than her years when we first meet her. Indeed, with Dawn, Mamatas has created a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional protagonist who one can almost imagine stepping from the page. This is the girl I always wanted to ask out in high school, yet never did, because I was afraid of her. Afraid of her wisdom and her self-assuredness and of how I might not measure up in her eyes. Her voice is so strong that it’s easy to forget that Mamatas is the writer.
You know all those teen shows on MTV and the CW? Imagine one of those as written by the creators of Breaking Bad. That’s Love Is The Law. It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers, but Dawn must investigate her mentor’s murder and catch the killer, and along the way there’s a boy and a basement party and all the other things teenagers have to deal with — but revisiting these tropes through the perspective of a character like Dawn is a treat. There are also all the things you’ve come to expect from Mamatas — bittersweet moments of genuine poignancy, laugh out loud sarcasm, razor-sharp insights on the human condition, and more than enough creepy atmospherics.
It’s also worth noting that Mamatas’s usage of both Occultism and Communism are superb and realistic. Experts will find the tenants of both to be factually accurate, and novices will find it all easy to understand. Highly recommended! Buy it here.
A giant Atari gaming cartridge attacks the heart of downtown Denver, causing mass destruction by bringing classic games to life. Trains turn into giant centipedes, citizens must cross busy roads by jumping across the tops of moving cars, and vehicles levitate over the city, shooting electricity at the people below. It’s up to Jimmy Toledo, Chuck E. Cheese employee and former gaming prodigy, to fight back against the games. But first he must overcome his crippling social anxiety, the crushing memory of his past failures, and his worthlessness as a human being.
In a world where humanoid bulls patrol the street, wormholes and portals make up children’s playgrounds, and flying turtles produce the most delicious bacon, Margy Plum and Victor Vance are quite content with playing old school video games and designing 8-bit chickens. When they find a cheat code to a strange game called Adamina, neither are prepared to see their video game exploits on the streets of their own town. To their horror, they have discovered a game that controls the universe.
Two more debut novels by two exciting new authors (side note: How awesome is it that all three debut authors on this year’s list were female? Pretty goddamn awesome).
I debated with myself about declaring this tie. Stylistically, Billing and deFonseca are noticeably different, coming at the bizarro genre from what I suspect are very different sides, and the plots are totally dissimilar (despite what you might think from reading he cover copy). But these two novels stem from thematically similar ground, and both truly deserve a look, so I ultimately decided on a tie.
I find the recent trend of video-game books and movies (such as Ready Player One and Wreck-It Ralph) a fascinating commentary on our society. It’s a niche with vast potential that I don’t suspect will remain untapped for long. And, speaking for myself, after a decade of zombies, vampires, real-world superheroes, mash-ups, and meta-fiction, I for one welcome our new overlords. (And yes, I know I’ve contributed to zombies, mash-ups, and meta-fiction. Calm down). There are so many ways to tell stories with this, and indeed, both Billings and de Fonseca succeed admirably in this regard. 8-Bit Apocalypse is a funny, riotous, full on bizarro look at what would happen if video games came to life, while de Fonseca’s The Cheat Code for God Mode is a more wistful, Matrix-styled exploratory examination of our NSA/Google/Bankster culture done with video game tropes. Both are definitely worth checking out. Buy 8-Bit Apocalypse here and buy The Cheat Code For God Mode here.
11. The Thicket by Joe Lansdale. Buy it here.
12. Braineater Jones by Stephen Kozeniewski. Buy it here.
13. The Compound by Robert Ford. Buy it here.
14. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. Buy it here.
15. Clusterfuck by Carlton Mellick III. Buy it here.